The contextlessness of Trump

Donald Trump’s speech is a deck of cards, shuffled randomly and dealt until he gets bored.

Note that this is a post about Donald Trump’s contemporary style of speaking, about the uniquely incoherent nature of his political speech, all the other enormous and galling problems with his election and administration left aside for the moment.

And what it’s about specifically is the way in which Trump’s speech exists as sentences and sentence fragments unmoored from context.  And I’ve done a simple experiment to demonstrate that.  See the files and excerpts at bottom.

So, most public speakers speak in paragraphs, pages, essays.  They have some sort of thesis and they develop it step by step over the course of a minute or five minutes or twenty minutes.  Politicians and pastors and poets, wedding speakers and teachers and barfly joke-tellers: they start at the start and work through the middle and come to the end.  Each step of the story or speech or joke happens in context of the rest of it, depends on that context.  The speaker strings it all together in a way that flows.

Trump doesn’t do that.  He wanders.  He lurches.  He free-associates.

He changes topic the way a person might change TV channels when they don’t know what they want to watch.  Click, click, click, rapid and restless, an overriding impatience constantly interrupting the flow of any particular narrative.

If you’ve listened to him speak, you already know this at some level, but I wanted to test out an illustration of the idea, and so I did a very simple text-manipulation experiment:

I took a transcript of his recent press conference — the one nominally about Alex Acosta’s nomination as Secretary of Labor but in which he spent all of five sentences on that before swerving wildly — and I broke it down into individual sentences and sentence fragments, each one on its own line in a text file.

And then I shuffled the order of all those lines randomly, several times.  I’m including the output of that shuffling process below.

The question here — a question you shouldn’t be able to ask with a straight face about any normal example of coherent public speaking — is this:

Are the randomized versions notably less coherent?  Do they sound any less plausibly like an actual transcript of a Trump speech?

I wouldn’t be writing this up if the answer was “yes”, but it’s still gobsmacking to look at on paper.  If he delivered any of these random speeches in public, no one would be shocked at this point.

From anyone else in a similar position, it’d be cause for immediate alarm.  If Obama, or a Bush, or a Clinton, or any member of congress stood up and spoke sentences from a speech at random and at length without seeming to notice, they’d be diverted from the public eye and examined for signs of neurological trauma.

From Trump, it’s expected.

The person in charge of the United States exists in a state of rhetorical contextlessness, spending his unscripted moments dipping randomly into a bucket of slogans and grudges and half-finished thoughts until the well or his tolerance runs dry.  This is the oratory of the nation, in 2017.  This is our face to the world, for now and for who knows how long.

Here are links to three text files, each a randomized set of lines from the above-linked transcript, along with quotes of the first few lines of each to give a sample of the resulting output.

Trump Shuffle 1

We’ve undertaken the most substantial border security measures in a generation to keep our nation and our tax dollars safe.
Unfortunately, much of the media in Washington, D.C., along with New York, Los Angeles in particular, speaks not for the people, but for the special interests and for those profiting off a very, very obviously broken system.
And also as you probably heard just a little while ago, Mick Mulvaney, former congressman, has just been approved weeks late, I have to say that, weeks, weeks late, Office of Management and Budget.
We are not going to let it happen any longer.
You may not see that.

Trump Shuffle 2

We’re waiting for approval.
Not going to take years.
No more release.
I turn on the T.V., open the newspapers and I see stories of chaos.
We’ve issued a game-changing new rule that says for each one new regulation, two old regulations must be eliminated.
That circuit is in chaos and that circuit is frankly in turmoil.
But we’re not going to let it happen, because I’m here again, to take my message straight to the people.
And I appreciate that.

Trump Shuffle 3

I ran for president to present the citizens of our country.
And the wall is going to be a great wall and it’s going to be a wall negotiated by me.
That’s all I’m doing.
I’m making this presentation directly to the American people, with the media present, which is an honor to have you.
I will not back down from defending our country.
Beginning on day one, our administration went to work to tackle these challenges.
I got elected on defense of our country.
It’s very important to me.

Self-portrait grisaille, from a Huntsville selfie

Painted this last night, based on a selfie I took on my phone in the summer of 2015 when my wife and I were in Huntsville, Alabama for a NASA internship she’d gotten.


This is my third go at self-portraiture in oil paints; I did two last year as well, all based off of photos because I haven’t yet figured out a setup I’m happy with for mirror + lighting + easel to work off my own reflection from.

I’m happier with this so far than I am with my previous two, based respectively off a selfie and off of a delightful blue-hued polaroid candid taken by Tamas Kadar during a meetup at XOXO 2016:

From a selfie at home.

My first oil self-portrait.  It was both pretty exciting to put it together and basically chock full of proportional and tonal problems since I was pretty actively making it all up as I went.

From Tamas’ snapshot.

This was my first experiment in monochrome, and you can see I was playing around with using a palette knife to lay in the white background.  I like the idea with this one but not very much the effect — the more muted blue haze of the original polaroid has a dreamy glow that this totally fails to capture, and again I find the proportional problems with it pretty distracting.

On to the new one, then:

Pencil outlines on canvas.

I started with a detailed pencil sketch on the canvas for this painting. With the previous two I’d done some sort of sketch to start as well, but not with the same care: for the first, just sketching in thinned-out paint with a brush on the canvas which several “starting painting” guides had suggested but which turns out not to work well at all for me; for the second a pencil outline but one I rushed a bit and declined in my desire to get going to stop and fix even when proportions were already seeming off.

This time I took my time, probably an hour or so building it up and reworking lines and redrawing detail bits.  Having done a similar job for a current work-in-progress painting of my cat Freyja was very satisfying and nudged me in the direction of doing so here as well, and it’s starting to feel like a good way for me to work.

I’m still not satisfied with the proportional relationship between the original photo and the drawing, but it’s a lot better and more careful in this outing and I’m happier with the results so far because of that.

Using a monochrome palette.

The grisaille was executed using Burnt Umber mixed with varying proportions of Titanium White, and nothing else.  No black in the mix; it’ll be easy to deepen the darkness of the darkest bits later, and the unmixed brown is already fairly striking on its own, so just fading it up with white was fine for this.  You can note (especially in the hair highlights I added late in the process) how mixing in white dulls the vibrance of the brown, though; I laid down thinned but unmixed Burnt Umber for my hair and eyebrows before doing the rest of the details and it’s the most lively feeling part of this current state.

In the patchwork reading about oil history and theory and practice I’ve done over the last eight months, I’d come across the idea of grisaille painting a few times but it hadn’t clicked for me until recently as I started to read up in more detail on glazing techniques.  Used loosely it can mean just a monochrome painting (whether literally greyscale or using a color as the core pigment), so both this and the previous blue one fall into that bucket, but there’s more specific style and theory ideas tied to the word as well.

The idea of specifically doing a grisaille in grey or neutral colors as an underpainting is the interesting thing to me, now, and where I’m planning to go with this one.

By using an essentially colorless first pass to establish the form of the painting as well as the values (basically, levels of brightness) of the whole composition, you can create a foundation for further work without having to juggle color mixing in the process and all the additional logistical issues and (literal, optical) value judgements that can come with mixing colored pigments.

And with that grisaille laid down, you can return to the dry underpainting and add color with transparent glazes.  That is, not by literally obscuring the underpainting with opaque paint out of the tube but by thinning the new colors with additional linseed oil, mineral spirits, etc. to create a translucent layer of color that lays over and takes on the values of the underlying paint.

This idea of using thin layers of transparent paint to blend optically wasn’t even on my radar for oil painting when I first started; imagine my surprise to find that it’s a fundamental technique in centuries of oil painting!

So I built an easel

When I started painting last summer I bought a cheap wooden tripod easel online, not knowing what I’d need or whether I really wanted to invest too much in what was a brand new, possibly short-lived hobby.

Monday of this week, I took that easel out of the house for the first time, to drive over to my friend Jesse’s place to do art together.  The easel promptly fell into two pieces.

“Jesse”, I said to him, “I would like you to have this easel.”

And so I was without a place to paint, and with a bunch of paintings in progress, and it became urgent to fill my self-imposed need.  And I decided to do it the hard but cheap way: build my own.

Here it is, assembled as of earlier this evening.

Finished easel, with work-in-progress painting of Freyja the cat.

I didn’t design it; this is following very closely on the reasonably detailed plans that have been online for a decade or more care of an artist named Ben Grosser; you can find the plans right here if you’re curious about building one or just want to see what I was working off of.  It’s a project that’s been recommended a number of times over the years on the art discussion site Wet Canvas, which is how I found it.  Thanks, Ben!

But I did build the goddam thing, and let me tell you: I am neither good at nor well prepared for woodworking.  I did a lot of things badly, out of a manic desire to get this thing done ASAP.

Continue reading “So I built an easel”